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Katarzyna Szewczyk-Haake

Poznań, Adam Mickiewicz University


The poems by Jakub Ekier constitute a case that is quite rare in contemporary poetry: the case when poems referring to religious paintings build, via those paintings, their own way to the truths of faith and the truths about faith. The analysed texts indicate the difference between the painting material, which makes use of light and silence, and the poetic element; at the same time it is an act of looking at an old master religious painting that becomes an inspiration for the effort to express in language the spiritual experience of modern man.

The poems analysed here, and dedicated to works of religious art, do not quite fit the typologies of ekphrasis that are the most commonly applied in Polish literary studies. This is due to the multiple levels deliberately created by Ekier in his poetry, although to some extent such is probably the specificity of a larger group of ekphrases concerning religious paintings. Poetic texts referring to such works of art touch both the substance of the representations (the biblical history) and the specificity of works of visual art, capable of expressing the biblical events using their own, specific means. In the presence of both of those spheres, language – particularly the language of modernity, increasingly diverging from the sacred – is to a certain extent helpless. By means of “ineffective reference” whose object is an old master religious painting, a poem is, however, able to say something important both about the modern reading of old masterpieces and about modern religious experience, for which the common denominators are the hermeneutical conviction of an inalienable character of one’s own cognitive horizon and constant attempts to cross it.

Keywords: Jakub Ekier, typology of ekphrasis, religious poetry, visual arts, the Isenheim altar


A work of poetry referring to a religious painting can bear different relations to the religious truths presented in that work of art. Religiuos, moral and sacred themes were often used in a traditional verbal and visual art form connecting an image and a poem, popular in previous centuries, and called the emblem. Between the contents expressed in its two parts there was, as an effect of a strict normative directive, a relation of correspondence, and the whole often had the nature of a moral reflection, grounded in the truths of faith.[1] Intuition, supported by the knowledge of changes that, over the following centuries, have occurred both in the principles of poetics and in the religious awareness of Europeans, makes us presume that such a quotation-like relationship of a poem with a religious painting would have been losing its importance when approaching the present time. All the more careful atention should therefore be paid to a very interesting and infrequent phenomenon which are modern poems referring to religious paintings, which are not (unlike the former emblem) an attempt to mirror the content of the painting but which, through its medium, build their own path towards the truths of faith, or truths about faith, depicted within.

Jakub Ekier’s poems about paintings, which are the subject of the current analysis, are devoted to the works of old masters dealing with the central theme of the history of salvation. Ekier is clearly interested in the visual art representations illustrating the Passion and Resurrection of Christ, without which, as Saint Paul writes, “your faith is vain” (1 Cor. 15: 17). Those events directly respond to the most radical existential questions: about pain, death, the contingency of human existence and the associated anxiety. At the same time the poet does not so much try to capture in his poems the religious truth about the event which is the content of a painting but rather – through careful observation of a work of religious art precisely as a work – he attests to an encounter with the sacred, mediated by art. How does this encounter happen?

1. stoję przed obrazami [I stand before paintings][2]

An encounter with a painting brings out of nonexistence an individual who is looking. A painting is a painting for someone, and this phenomenological relationship reveals the recipient. It is he who sees, in the case of this poem, the paintings in the space of a museum: a well-known painting by Thomas Gainsborough and another, whose title or author is not specified by the poem’s speaker, and whose subject matter is the Resurrection of Christ:

I see

down the dress of Mrs Hamilton Nisbet

flashes are streaming 


I see the night

when the stone from the grave

is rising like crushed stalks like sounds

of trumpets for the words Et resurrexit

I see it

The transition from the painting by a British artist, representing a beautiful woman, to a work with a religious subject matter, referring explicitly to the realm of the infinite and transcendent, establishes a number of subtle relationships between the picture (seeing), the space (that of a museum and the one shown in the picture) and the domain of the sacred.

It would seem that, in the context of the Resurrection in the painting and in the Gospel, as referred to in the second stanza, the portrait of a woman in an elegant dress glittering with fleeting and perishable flashes of light, described in the first stanza, has the character of a symbol of vanity. However, such a relationship would be too simple, too pushy and not corresponding to the truth of the experience described in the poem. The paintings described clearly belong to the same order, and what binds in a superior unity the encounter with them is the verb “see”, repeated three times. Looking at the paintings, “seeing” their content – flashes on the woman’s dress and the night of the miracle of the gravestone thrown away – leads directly to a visual experience that transcends them and is difficult to touch with a word because the formula “I see it” which closes the stanza is extremely comprehensive. Whether “it” is any element of the representation is doubtful. The second stanza of the poem accelerates and a chain of enjambements reflects the speed and immediacy of thoughts and associations. They lead far beyond the figurative representation, towards the realm of nature (“crushed stalks”) and the domain of music (“sounds of trumpets”) – the domains equally unstable and eternal. The precise comparisons, touching the miracle of the Resurrection without naming it, express the paradoxical character of “seeing” initiated by the painting but extending far beyond it. The short verse “I see it”, although grammatically complete, essentially constitutes the semantic cutting of a thought in the middle, the silence in the face of something impossible to be named precisely, something that is reached by the thought moved by the experience of looking. To what areas this experience directs emotions and the intellect becomes clear in the third, final stanza:

for Thaddeus Olgierd

Stanislaus Siegfried Irene

Marian Anna Catherine Margaret

After seeing the unnameable, the most appropriate gesture is the recitation of prayer for the dead – perhaps for loved ones, and perhaps for all who through the centuries stood in front of the same paintings at which each of us is looking today. Here follows a sudden change of the poem’s tone. Litany-like peacefulness appears immediately after the emphatic phrase “I see it”, leaving the reader in similar emotional elation, like some musical finales, closing a piece of music on a high note. After the epiphany there comes time for an entrusting prayer, remaining a sign of trust, though devoid of the directness of an apostrophe. Characteristically, in this prayer the subject “I”, clearly visible in the previous stanzas, disappears and its place is taken by the procession of the dead.

In front of paintings man experiences a revelation that leads him to thoughts of eternity and to trust in prayer, perhaps – even to the hope of immortality. Not incidentally (and, I think, not only as a consequence of the thematic connection with the Resurrection – as there were more paintings seen, after all) the prayer in which the subject disappears is a traditional Christian prayer for the dead. The vision proposed in the poem is therefore not a modern “religion of art”, which perhaps brings relief to its followers but does not allow them to tame the mystery of death, which is part of the fate of every human being. At the same time, man’s turn towards the sacred, happening before the paintings, does not have the characteristics of triumphant intoxication by gained confidence. The sense of finding the sacred lies in peacefulness, unity with the dead, and a sense of trust. The paintings seen by the subject open their viewer to that which cannot be put into words and what allows one to build a relationship with the fragile human world, to come to terms with death, transience, pain, but also, perhaps, with the vocation of an artist creating works for the receivers standing before paintings and reading, who are also doomed to pass away.

3. Złożenie Chrystusa do grobu, olej, płótno [“The Entombment of Christ”, oil on canvas][3]

one by one we look at them

who hold the pierced one in the light

hold as if they wanted to remember

because we will forget all

to death


all to death


one by one

in the light of the pierced one

The poem, thematically linked to the Passion, and dedicated to the scene of the burial of Christ’s body, frequently depicted by painters, does not allow for an identification of the painting to which it refers, although both its subject and the imaging characteristics (chiaroscuro) indicate that it belongs to works of art of the old masters. The elements of painting technique hightlighted by the poem’s speaker[4] are, however, important for interpretation as the way the painted scene is shown expressly directs the reflection of the speaker. The painterly use of contrasts of light and shadow becomes the basis for the play of meanings that is the key to the sense of the poem and that opens in the first stanza with the phrase “one by one […] hold the pierced one in the light” and closes in the poem’s finale with “one by one / in the light of the pierced one”.

Already in the first stanza, a community of a certain “we” is indicated: presumably, a community of viewers standing before a painting, passing by and passing away in the face of the centuries-old painting as well as in the face of the events depicted there, that have remained current throughout the centuries (there appears a double dimension of “passing”, already familiar from the poem I stand before paintings, chronologically speaking – anticipating it). This “we” is in opposition to “them”, that is, the people who are holding the body being buried in the grave. The contrast between “we” and “they” is decided on by the difference of memory: “they” want to remember the experience of burying “the pierced one” whereas “we”, as stated by the speaker most emphatically, “will forget to death.” This formula gains a dramatic dimension when the phrase repeated like an echo is cut off and acquires the form:

all to death

The blending of two different idioms: “all for nothing” and “forget to death” results in a tragic statement that “all” that we have forgotten and will forget ceases to exist for us. What is more, “all”, including ourselves, drifts to non-existence, exists towards death. Yet the end of the poem disputes and repeals the tragedy of that statement. For all the people – those depicted in the painting, once actually accompanying the pierced one on his last journey, but also those looking at the painting – “one by one” exist in the light of the pierced one: of his life, passion, perhaps also – although this is happens to be a hint outside the text of the poem – of his Resurrection.

“The light of the pierced one” is a paradoxical expression, just as, from the human point of view, paradoxical was the victory of Christ on the cross. “Light” may have connotations with triumph and salvation, “pierced” is semantically related to suffering and death. In a manner that is similarly paradoxical, though revealing a relation of seemingly conflicting meanings,[5] the reflection in the poem, built on the view of a religious painitng, provides evidence of the clash of religious and non-religious attitudes, positioning itself between them. One may put forward a thesis that in this way the perspective of modern man is revealed, living in a time when religion has a progressively smaller number of genuine believers, and therefore the “we” of the poem are doomed to forget everything that is important. The closing couplet, however, slightly mitigates this tragic conclusion, and allows for perceiving in “them” and “us”, separated by time and space, a basic, common destiny beyong the divisions: passing “one by one”. Then it should be concluded that the text has a more universal dimension and that it deals with fear and hesitation, from which, as we know from the Gospels, even the people burying the body of Christ in the grave were not free, and which sometimes afflicts the soul of probably everyone who has had contact with religion. Faith is a grace whose experience is dynamic and whose nature is well captured by the contrast of light and darkness, mentioned in the poem and present in the painting.

Similarly to the poem analysed earlier, this one also contains noteworthy elements of a metaartistic statement about the essence of art. The oil and canvas are obvious attributes of a painting but also of burials at the time of Christ. The analogy suggests that the painting, like any work of art, proves the human belief in the timeless character of creations of the human spirit but at the same time, as a product of human hands, is subject to the laws of transience. Creating and admiring a painted scene is, in a sense, analogous to the act of burying the deceased: an act of commemoration, directed against transience, although it transcends the latter unambiguously and forces the recipient to remember about it. It is the fruit of the faith in the possibility to overcome the horror of the world and, in the case of a religious work of art, faith in the obviousness of this victory.


3. ołtarz z Isenheim[6] [the Isenheim altarpiece] (from the volume krajobraz ze wszystkimi, [a landscape with all], 2012)

The reader has no difficulty in identifying the work of art that is the subject of the poem as it is referred to in the title itself although also this text does not contain a detailed description. The poem names only fragments of the representation: flesh, thorn, sable, constituting perhaps the most shocking elements shown in the painting by Matthias Grünewald The Crucifixion, visible on the wings of the altar when closed. From these fragments there grows, in enormous acceleration, a stream of associations and sounds leading from the physical pain of the crucified body towards the infinite and cosmic dimensions.

in this flesh

thorns from them shades

sables universes and in them


where flows the laughter of gulls over the seas

and inaudibly behind walls

a seed weeps

The crescendo of the first lines, connected by enjambements, accelerating in a manner already known from the poem analysed above (“The Entombment of Christ”, oil on canvas) and disrupting the natural rhythm of rhyming phrases, is broken by a one-word line and is then followed by the calming of the rhythm due to the parallel structure of lines and clauses. The variable, jerky rhythm is the only, though emphatic, signal of being moved by the contents of the painting. Although the text begins by recalling “this flesh” – the body maltreated and tortured – the poem places itself far from literal descriptions of the Crucifixion, situating this event in the cosmic perspective. Placing the image of the dead Christ in the space of “universes” directs the mind towards Speech of the Dead Christ from the Universe that There Is No God (1796) by Jean Paul, an important point in the process of modern invalidation of traditional religion and metaphysics, and this association clearly enough leads to the understanding of death as an individual, absurd event, which loses its importance in the cosmic order.

It should be doubted, however, whether Ekier’s poem may be counted among works proclaiming the cosmic failure of the New Testament work of salvation. Although the cosmos is silent in the face of human tragedies, at the same time its space is filled with music of the spheres, proving its harmony, inaudible to humans. In the text of the poem a thread of rhyme is interwoven: multi-element, appearing in unexpected places, and yet distinct. The internal rhyme introduces into the dramatic poem (referring to an extremely dramatic work of art) a note of harmony, of unexpected order, because the meanings of the rhyming words are composed in a surprising whole.

Based on consonance, the series of words around which the text is built: flesh thorn shades – sable – earths seed (in the poem, in forms rhyming in assonance: in the flesh thorns shades sables earths seed),[7] makes one see in “earths” at least a double meaning, evoking homonymy hidden in that word. From the dimension of the infinite the text returns to an earthly and human perspective. The semantic sequence: earths seed indicates the existence of a vegetative order, an order of rebirth and renewal of life, which must – like a seed – die in order to exist and issue yield again (cf. John 12: 24). “Earths”, places of human existence, are full of joy and despair – it is not incidental that in this short poem there glitters a semantic opposition of “laughter” (of gulls) and “weeping” (of the seed). In this space there occurs a drama of suffering and death (both of these words, though not used in the poem, exist there as connotations evoked by Grünewald’s work as well as by a clearly audible consonance with the series of rhyming words mentioned above), but it also contains a future existence in embryo. Such a philosophical and anthropological perspective is, in its most general form (not concerning the dogmas), in accordance with the Christian explanation of the sense and aim of human life; and I think that not only does the similarity stem from the fact that Grünewald’s altar is a work of religious art, but it is also influenced by the fact that the retabulum, although it left the church interior for which it was devoted long ago (in 1852 it was transferred from the hospital chapel of the Antonine monastery in Saint-Antoine en Viennoise to the chapel of the Dominican convent of Unterlinden in Colmar, converted into a museum three years before) is now exhibited in the space of a museum which, nevertheless, formerly had a sacred function. The architecture of the museum hall where Grünewald’s work can be seen today (and where the poet may have seen it) carries with it the memories of its former use and the altar, located in it, certainly reinforces those associations even in a situation of being shown as a museum exhibit and a partial change of the spatial character of that work (in the museum, it is impossible to watch the movement of the wings). Also the size and proportions of the retabulum lead the viewers to look at the depicted scenes from the position of worshippers coming to church, with their eyesight directed upwards, being themselves situated much below the paintings. Such spatial relations affect those emotions and thoughts accompanying the act of viewing and, presumably, that is why Ekier’s poem discussed here approaches, to the largest extent of all of the analysed texts, the Christian worldview, which in the face of suffering and death, unavoidable in earthly life, reminds one about the hope of eternal life.

On this basis it may be argued that, although the fragmentary description in the poem only applies to the representation visible in the wings of the closed Isenheim altar, the poem’s title is right to direct the recipient to the entire medieval masterpiece. After opening Grünewald’s retabulum, the viewers see the representations of the Resurrection. The rising from the dead, hidden from the eyes of those who are looking at the tortured body of the Saviour on the Cross, is death’s complement. Its existence is difficult to realise; the truth about the renewal of life is indeed hidden under the first pair of the altar wings, and on the level of words – it is “inaudible”. It permeates every element of reality, in which lurk death and oblivion, being its fulfillment – ever-present though muted by the paralysing power of suffering.

Due to the construction of the Isenheim altar (which is characteristic of medieval hinged poliptychs), the Crucifixion and Resurrection cannot be viewed simultaneously (Ekier resigns from creating the suggestion which might be made by describing the movement of the wings opening up).[8] Death is that element of life which is dominant in its common vision resulting from everyday experience and mercilessly hides from us the truth of the Resurrection, though sometimes it is not able to silence it completely. Grünewald’s work in its reading proposed in the poem reminds us about hope, whose sign for the believers is the Resurrection of Christ, as well as makes us realise how difficult it is to sustain this hope.

4. Light and silence

Are Jakub Ekier’s poems about paintings, analysed here, indicating the possibility of a sacred experience in the face of a work of religious art, situated – as the thematic choices would indicate – within the Christian experience? Caution in making the distinction is necessary, if only for the reason that, in these poems, Christ is not even once mentioned by His name; he is described as “the pierced one” and in the scene by Grünewald simply as “this flesh”. In the paintings recalled we see him dead and his Resurrection is, as I have pointed out, in the realm of under-statement, that is in-describ-able (significantly, the illustration of that event, evoked in the poem I stand before paintings, is described in such a way that the Risen One himself is not even mentioned). Concentrating his poems about paintings consistently on religious themes and looking at the representations of the Passion, Entombment and Resurrection, Ekier does not even once reach for the Christian dogmatic interpretation. Neither do his poems have the nature of prayer. A superficial reading might suggest that the poet is – like all Europeans for several centuries – a participant in the symbolic order of Christianity, though – like most artists today – he does not draw any religious consequences from this fact.[9] In-depth analyses of the texts, however, do not permit stopping at such a thesis. Note that when writing about the paintings Ekier does not focus on their colours, exposing instead the effects of light: flashes, night (I stand before paintings), light (“The Entombment of Christ”…), shades (the Isenheim altarpiece). This predilection guides the reader towards traces of mysticism associated with the symbolism of darkness and light, as well as a consistent reappraisal of vision, perception, referring to the concept of “spiritual eye”, the inner vision, important in the Platonic tradition, but also in the Christian one. In the painting, both the one whose subject is the biblical history of salvation as well as another (as evidenced by recalling the work by Thomas Gainsborough), via its painterly shape, one can perceive such truths that are not directly present in its content but transcend it, touching the truth about human spirituality and openness to the Absolute.

Such openness to the absolute dimension of a work of art is facilitated by yet another element which, paradoxically, the quoted lines are full of, namely – silence. Built with words, which by definition ruin silence, the analysed poems are full of measures that emphasize the fact that the paintings to which they refer are silent and make us speak quietly. The analysed poems break the silence as if unintentionally: they expose noiseless movement; they speak with quiet sounds, reminiscent of the silence in a museum – or a church. What is essential and what is the beginning of something valuable, which could appear in the future (the “seed” in the poem the Isenheim altarpiece), manifests itself in a way that is, significantly, “inaudible”. In the poem the Isenheim altarpiece, the silence of the masterpiece has been enhanced by euphonic effects (significantly, these are voiceless fricatives in the sequence of words: shades thorns earths). The same purpose is served by ellipsis and by silences; and the meaning of these measures is best visible in the finale of “I stand…, when the prayer for the dead becomes silent, turning into prayer uttered internally. Silence in the quoted poems is sometimes broken but this happens only by associations and comparisons leading beyond the space representation, such as the sound of the musical instrument to which an element of the image of the Resurrection is compared (“the stone… like sounds of trumpets”) as well as the “laughter of gulls” and the “weeping” of the seed, distant from the poem’s subject matter and counterpointing it (the “weeping” is indeed, as has already been mentioned, “inaudible”).

Silence as a prerequisite for concentration that allows one to reach the higher truth about reality can be understood in at least two ways. The meaning and purpose of the “becoming silent”, of rejecting the distracting sounds which come from the outside, can lie either in “getting rid of the self”, the removal of one’s own emotions and experiences so as to encounter on this path the Absolute that transcends man, or in “reaching oneself”, the truth about oneself.[10] The latter possibility has been proposed by modernity while the former is a chronologically earlier concept developed by centuries of Christian asceticism and mysticism.

A work of verbal art, in particular, as one might think, a lyrical work, is the kind of expression which naturally exposes the speaker; and it would be difficult to consider removing that speaker from the field of view. Note, however, that in Ekier, eagerly reaching in his poems for religious works of premodern art, an encounter with those works clearly pushes the speaker to the shadow. There occurs a process that is most clearly described in the poem I stand before paintings: the subjective “I”, who says “I see”, “I stand”, dissolves and disappears. In Ekier’s poems, works of art, and curiously, works of religious art, which he tends to describe, stimulate the silencing of internal noise and the discovery of the Absolute on this path. They do this for everyone who looks at them, including “one by one” the onlookers, entangled in transience and searching for a way to reconcile with it.

In Ekier, the silence which a religious painting grants the speaker does not serve the pursuit of “the self”. The subjective “I”, standing in silence in front of images, becomes open to transcendence. In an act of viewing a religious painting as a work of art, the opposition between the dogma and spiritual freedom becomes suspended.[11] At the same time, communing with works of religious art is something more here than “spiritual self-improvement” because the silence that sounds in the analysed poems is the silence of a mystical encounter. A representation with the religious subject matter efficiently mediates in finding the sacred – although it does not make this encounter easy.

5. A proposal of terminology

In her typology of intertextual references which connect a poem and a painting, Seweryna Wysłouch distinguished: a pretextual reference, a virtuoso show, a polemical interpretation of the original painting, a dispute about art.[12] Considering the analyses conducted above, it may be concluded that Jakub Ekier’s poems fit into none of these categories. I think that this is because the substance of his poems refers to the reality of the sacred of which the paintings are merely a medium: by referring to works of art, the texts undoubtedly also direct attention to what the discussed works of art try to express in a way that is not mimetic. The represented event cannot be described as a pretext (on the contrary, its profound sense is constantly sought here). There is no indication that the poems are deliberate attempts of a formally brilliant, perfect description of the masterpieces. There is no question of a polemic with the essential content or of a metaartistic statement (threads of this kind are, after all, of a secondary and complementary nature). Considering the relationship of the analysed poems by Ekier with the sense of the painterly representations, I would describe them as ineffective references, the essence of which would be triple. Its “ineffectiveness” would result from the different materials of the two dialoguing works (the need to perform intersemiotic translation, which – like every translation – cannot be completely adequate), from the inevitable “ineffectiveness” of language struggling with the sacred[13] and, finally, from the “ineffectiveness” of attempts made by secularised modernity to capture the Mystery. The effectiveness of these measures cannot be complete if the goal is absolute fidelity (both to the work constituting the object of reference and to the sacred, transcending human ways of expression). If, however, one accepts Charles Taylor’s theory that today a significant part of the spiritual quest takes place in the non-dogmatic sphere without losing its sacred dimension,[14] then even these “ineffective” attempts play an important role in the spiritual development of the speaker. To realise this more clearly, let us return for a moment to one of the poems.

Seemingly close to “polemical interpretation”, the poem “The Entombment of Christ”, oil on canvas clearly establishes the difference between the pictorial “them”, referring to witnesses of the burial, and the modern “us”, which at first glance gives the poem such a polemical tone. But should we perceive in this a polemic with the cultural tradition referred to in the painting and in the poem? Not really. As we have seen, the description of the difference between “their” and “our” perception reveals the grief and conviction of the religious amnesia of modernity; and the end of the poem establishes a community of experience above a difference of memory. On the contrary, the poem is an attempt to find the path to the European tradition of Christian spirituality, or rather to what constituted its essential meanings, and which had its origins in the religious experience – the path in modernity exceptionally beset with difficulties. The poem exhibits a double mediation of significant religious matters to which it refers: it points to a religious painting which gives an account of New Testament events, the painting that, after all, is itself just a medium. A painting is not the truth of an event (the Crucifixion, Entombment and Resurrection), rather it is just its reminder. For a modern poet it seems to be as much a reminder of the event from the life of Christ and the history of salvation as the evidence that the belief in those matters was once able to move people’s minds and encourage artist’s creativity. Among the people who kept appearing in front of religious paintings through the centuries many believed in the sacred dimension of events immortalised in them; many prayed in front of Grünewald’s painting during the Mass, and the representation of the Crucified Christ in the altarpiece was to be a consolation for the suffering and sick. The fact that modernity has placed religious paintings in museums (such was also the fate of Grünewald’s altarpiece), where they are “one by one” passed by and soon forgotten, separates today’s visitors from the former community of the faithful. Impeding a religious experience in the face of a painting does not, however, make it impossible, although it occurs on a path other than exclusively an affirmation of the painting’s content. The poems commented upon here are proof of this possibility.

6. Conclusion: jest [there it is] (from the volume krajobraz ze wszystkimi [a landscape with all], 2012)[15]

in a hospital kiosk

for 3.80

crucified between two

boxes of chocolate bars and a wooden tulip

A grotesque image, one of many in everyday life? I think that it is rather a modest epiphany, a quiet (note the lack of punctuation, which in this case is particularly striking) and common (in the wonderful, double meaning of the word present in reference to common prayer) profession of faith – faith that is not very spectacular, neither central nor marginal, but just present every day. The fact that the whole event takes place between the “boxes of chocolate bars and a wooden tulip” does not change the essence of the phenomenon spotted by searching eyes:

crucified between two

Ekier is a master of enjambement, the evidence of which may be found in all previously analysed poems. Here this skill results in spotting, amidst the misery of a kiosk, what (who?) has been the most urgently sought, and what (Who?) is an object of searching and longing far more universal than anything dictated by a passing hospital need. By looking for an object, at the same time we look for the one who is represented by that object. This relationship sheds some light on Ekier’s poems on works of art. The archhuman aura which accompanies all human ways of reaching towards the absolute (on a par – looking for a cross in a hospital kiosk and facing a painting which depicts scenes from the life of Christ) is inalienable but it belongs to the human condition that the seeing human eyes may find what they look out for. If they look.


Translated by Agnieszka Gicala

[1] “A piece of poetry” was to be “a reflective-moralistic commentary and development of meanings suggested by an image and an inscription”, Słownik terminów literackich, eds. J. Sławiński et al., Wrocław 1988, p. 118; cf. also: K. Mrowcewicz, Wprowadzenie do lektury, in: A.T. Lacki, Pobożne pragnienia, ed. K. Mrowcewicz, Warszawa 1997, pp. 8ff.; J. Pelc, P. Pelc, Wstęp, in: Z. Morsztyn, Emblemata, eds. J. and P. Pelc, Warszawa 2001, pp. XVIff.

[2] J. Ekier, stoję przed obrazami, in: idem, krajobraz ze wszystkimi, Poznań 2012, p. 28.

[3] J. Ekier, “Złożenie Chrystusa do grobu”, oil on canvas, in: idem, podczas ciebie, Kraków 1999, p. 18. I made this poem the subject of analysis in my paper Stając przed wierszem, “Polonistyka” 2009, no. 3, pp. 49–51. I would like to thank Paulina Czwordon-Lis for a conversation about this poem, allowing me to broaden my earlier perspective.

[4] Characteristically, neither in this poem not in other poems discussed by me does Ekier make any reference to the painting materials used in the works of art to which he refers. Considering that he pays attention to sometimes tiny painting details, this omission seems to be significant and shows a view focussed on meanings which stem from the subject and form of a representation rather than its physical shape. This is not a result of looking at the works from a distance: in a museum it is easy to come to paintings close enough to see their surface in detail and the altar painting referred to by Ekier in the poem the Isenheim altarpiece, analysed below, is now exhibited in a way that allows for convenient observation of this kind, namely in the Unterlinden Museum in Colmar, in a former Dominican convent (more on this subject below). The question that is relatively troublesome to answer is in what space the poem’s speaker is looking at The Entombment of Christ because the text does not allow for the specification of which painting is referred to; and a work of this kind may be found both in a museum and in such places as in an altar in a church. The omission of issues related to the material of the paintings should, I think, be seen in the perspective of the unique sensitivity of the poet, who, in the works of art selected by him for description, does not perceive material objects but visual structures which, via the content of their formal shape, lead to the spiritual sphere.

[5] “The light of the pierced one”, if we treat this phrase not as a description of a visual impression formed while looking at the painting but as a purely mental concept, reveals, I think, a distant resemblance to the Baroque principle of concordia discors – discordia concors, which corresponds well with the fact that the described painting, due to the use of chiaroscuro, may be associated with that epoch.

[6] J. Ekier, ołtarz z Isenheim, in: idem, krajobraz ze wszystkimi (fn. 3), p. 29.

[7] The assonance (similarity of vowels) is visible in the Polish, original version. The translator tried to compensate for that effect and achieve a similarity of sounds by using words containing voiceless fricative consonants. In this way the translation remains close to another feature of the poem, namely the effect of silence, mentioned by the author of the present text – cf. section 4 below (Agnieszka Gicala).

[8] This gesture differentiates Ekier from Tadeusz Różewicz, who undertook the effort of poetic interpretation of the Isenheim altar in his poem Róża (published in the volume Poezje zebrane, 1971). The reading of Grünewald’s works by Ekier differs from Różewicz’s not only in this respect – cf. K. Szewczyk-Haake, Kolce Grünewalda. Róża Różewicza i ołtarz z Isenheim (the paper presented at the session “Tadeusz Różewicz i sztuka”, Poznań, December 2013, in press).

[9] Cf. Ch. Taylor, A Secular Age, Cambridge–Massachusetts–London, 2007, pp. 514ff.

[10] Cf. S. Maitland, “Never Enough Silence”. Conflicts Between Spiritual and Literary Creativity, in: Spiritual Identities. Literature and the Post-Secular Imagination, eds. J. Carruthers, A. Tate, Bern 2010, p. 26.

[11] Which is characteristic of modern spirituality, not excluding deep authenticity that is present in it, cf. Taylor 2007 (fn. 9), p. 509.

[12] S. Wysłouch, O malarskości literatury, in: Wiedza o literaturze i edukacja. Księga referatów Zjazdu Polonistów, eds. T. Michałowska, Z. Goliński, Z. Jarosiński, Warszawa 1996, p. 701. Extensive information on various typologies of ekphrases can also be found in the book by Adam Dziadek (cf. idem, Obrazy i wiersze. Z zagadnień interferencji sztuk w polskiej poezji współczesnej, Katowice 2004, pp. 7–14).

[13] Cf. D. Czaja, Noc ciemna. Nihilologia i wiara, in: Nowoczesność i nihilizm, eds. E. Partyga, M. Januszkiewicz, Warszawa 2012, p. 111.

[14] Cf. Taylor 2007 (fn. 9).

[15] J. Ekier, jest, in: idem, krajobraz ze wszystkimi (fn. 3), p. 19.

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